Sensory Series – Tantrum or Meltdown? What’s the difference?

Tantrum or Meltdown? What’s the difference?

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The terms meltdown and tantrum are often used interchangeably when discussing autistic people (although predominantly autistic children), but they are two very different things and it is important to distinguish between the two.

To get straight to the point – meltdowns are usually the result of sensory or information overload, tantrums are usually attempts to get something you want, to get your own way or are the result of not getting something you want or your own way.

Can autistic people have tantrums? Absolutely. Everyone can have tantrums – from small children up to your grandmother and grandfather, although granny and grandad don’t tend to throw themselves on the floor and kick and scream for a toy in the middle of supermarkets. Tantrums aren’t just full blown kicking, crying, wailing things – as we get older they can manifest in different ways, arguably when adults sulk it’s a kind of low-key tantrum.

So then can non-autistic people have meltdowns? Again, absolutely they can. Someone overwhelmed by a situation, someone going through an intense experience like grief or a traumatic experience, or even someone who normally has no sensory problems but is suffering with a splitting migraine may end up having a meltdown. It’s not just an autistic thing, it’s just that autistic people are much more likely to experience meltdowns due to the different way they experience the world.

To give some really obvious (and honestly quite cliched) examples, look at the two situations below:

  1. Parent and child are in the supermarket, the child asks for sweets. The parents says no, there are sweets at home. Child asks again. Parents says no. Child starts crying and screaming and stamping their feet. This is a tantrum.
  2. Parent and child are in the supermarket, they’ve walked through the fridge aisle (where the fridges hum and there are florescent backlights), they’ve walked past the fish and cheese counter (with overwhelming and conflicting smells), and now they’re walking past the entertainment aisles where one of the new singles from X singer is playing from the speakers. Child drops to the floor and starts screaming. This is a meltdown.

A meltdown is not an attempt by someone to get their own way – by the time someone has gone into meltdown, they cannot completely control their own reaction. They are overwhelmed and the meltdown is the only way left to try and deal with the overload.

If you give in to a tantrum then you are reinforcing the idea that kicking, screaming and such-like gets you what you want. Taking someone out of the environment that caused them to meltdown is not reinforcing bad behaviour, it is acknowledging that the environment or experience was difficult for them to manage, that is overwhelmed them, and you respect that.

Meltdowns are perhaps most common as a result of sensory overload but they do occur after other overloads as well. I will use two examples below to demonstrate some other meltdowns that I have seen during my work:

  1. A boy in keystage one used to regularly drop to the floor and cry hysterically during lessons in the afternoon, yet didn’t during the morning. After investigation (first looking at possible sensory causes) it was discovered that the teaching assistant in the afternoon did not allow for processing time like the one in the morning did. The morning T.A always allowed 10-15 seconds before repeating an instruction or adding more information; the one in the afternoon allowed at most 3. The student was being overloaded with information and it caused him to meltdown during afternoon lessons.
  2. Another boy used to pace as a form of self-regulation – specifically pacing in circles around the provision classroom. His support knew that self-regulation was important so did not interfere when he was self-regulating; yet without fail his pacing would become faster and his entire body would begin to tense up and then eventually he would meltdown and scream and throw furniture and hit out at staff. It turned out that he found it difficult to stop pacing once he started, and would continue to pace past the point of calming himself down until he was in a state of agitation at which point he would eventually have a meltdown.

During meltdowns people can get hurt – both the individual having the meltdown and those around them – and things can get broken or damaged, but it’s important to remember that this usually isn’t personal. The individual having the meltdown does usually not mean to hurt anyone or anything and they are often mortified once they have come out of the meltdown and realised what they have done. Of course, if there’s something they see as being the cause of their meltdown then they may absolutely try and make that go away, but it’s not quite the same as making a conscious decision to turn around and punch someone just because you don’t like them.

I think I could type about this topic for ages, but I’ll leave it for now before this post gets too long. As always, leave a comment below if you have anything to add.

Until next time.


Disclaimer: The opinions and information provided in this post are my own, and based on personal, educational, and work-based experience. They do not reflect the opinions of any of the authors of the content referenced in this post. I am not affiliated or supported by any organisation, and this is meant to be an educational series of posts. The information posted here is not a substitute for advice and information provided by your own GP, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or other professional in the field of autism, and should not be taken as such.

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